by Luke C. Sheahan
President Jimmy Carter was castigated for infamously describing a malaise infecting the American people. Critics pounced. Surely if a nation is afflicted with malaise, its national leader bears some of the blame. Few could find in such an expression inspiration to action.
Whatever the merit of that indictment in the 1970s, who can doubt that it’s an accurate assessment of American society today? A sclerotic economy, high inflation, declining civic participation, apparent incompetence at every level of government, an increasingly polarized political environment, dominated by the fringes on the left and the rights, leaves us thinking with Yeats,
The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
But why? Why do the best lack all conviction? What is the source of their malaise? How can we shape “the best” so that it is they who call the shots, and not “the worst” who are “full of passionate intensity?” How can we insure that the “best” get into positions of authority if our elections often exclude them from consideration?
Leadership that emerges out of the fateful combination of malaise in the middle and passion at the extremes is unlikely to come from politics and policy. What we are talking about is a question of character. In the shaping of character, we must turn to the social rather than political realm.
The American sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote poignantly on the damage political power could do to the social realm by taking over the functions of social groups and thus undermining social leadership. But a deeper theme in his work is the imaginative dimension to this phenomenon. The modern mind is dominated by the vision of salutary political power that renders inert efforts at social improvement and neutralizes social entrepreneurship. After all, who needs character and social formation when we have systems?
In Twilight of Authority, published in 1975, just after the Watergate scandal and a few years before President Carter’s fateful indictment, Nisbet surveyed the political and social landscape and saw that the type of social authority essential to social vitality in local communities and small social groups had eroded under the pressure of political and economic centralization. Every sign was that these communities and groups would continue to erode for a century or more. Nonetheless, he looked to the future, speculating on what a “genuine social regeneration in the West might consist of.”
Nisbet emphasized a “rediscovery of the social.” While politics plays a key role in modern society, there are many functions and memberships which are not political, but social. Think of friendships, religious organizations, and families. The people you have coffee with, work with, and invite to your children’s birthday parties are related to you primarily through social networks of neighborhood, religion, family, and the like, and not political affiliation. But in common discussions of broad social order, we focus with laser-like intensity upon who holds the reins of power in our major political institutions. We come to hate those who vote differently in presidential elections. While not inconsequential, our political relationships must take a backseat to our social ties. Key to reviving these social ties, Nisbet believed, was the “liberation of the idea of the social from the political.”
Nisbet blamed much modern political theory, especially Rousseau’s concept of the General Will, with explicitly eviscerating from our political imaginations all associations and communities that do not directly support the activities of the political state. We struggle to imagine and to envision social groups and functions that arise through freely-chosen social initiative. Nisbet, again, wrote, “The great challenge to the contemporary imagination…[is] the identification of functions, processes, and membership which do not belong to the state.”
We need the vocabulary to describe the social vitality we seek. Nisbet advanced two key concepts, social inventions and social entrepreneurship, that offered a way to understand how to revitalize our communities. Social inventions are “structures” of the social bond that come into existence to preserve or create communities. Such structures are the very stuff of human life. Nisbet wrote, “[H]uman beings are bound, in one or other degree, by ties of work, friendship, recreation, learning, faith, love, and mutual aid.” Think of the small village at the beginning of the agricultural revolution, the scientific and literary societies in the early modern period, the voluntary associations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These are social inventions, creations of social structures to adapt to economic and existential changes to human life.
Social entrepreneurship is the leadership that creates meaningful communities between and among persons, either through invention of new social forms or the reinvention of old ones. All of the voluntary associations that flourished at the turn of the twentieth century were a renewal of the social form of the voluntary association put to new uses in an industrialized and increasingly democratic society.
Critics are quick to point out that these social ties can be oppressive. But is that the problem we have today? Are we awash in associations so oppressive that they squelch our personalities; or is our problem that our social ties have become too tenuous? Is our problem that individual initiative and character is suppressed by social ties; or is our problem that we lack the social context that cultivates true individuality, the structure of socialization that cultivates character?
Nisbet wrote, “individual initiative and talent are rarely to be found outside the framework of some kind of moral and intellectual community.” Look to the examples of Socrates and Plato. The founding of philosophy and political thought was in a small group, tightly knit. We see the same dynamic playing out through the golden ages of history, Periclean Athens or Elizabethan England or Renaissance Florence or Philadelphia in 1787, for example. Over and over we see that such ages that produce a Socrates or a Shakespeare are ages of vibrant small groups replete with face to face interactions. Not to conflate genius with character, but both are the result of cultivation in small groups. That is precisely what we lack in the present time.
If we hope to cultivate the best of whom Yeats spoke and to endow them with conviction, we must begin with reviving social vitality through social entrepreneurship and social invention.
Luke C. Sheahan is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Duquesne University, Nonresident Senior Affiliate of the Penn Partnership for Innovation, Cross-Sector Collaboration, Leadership, and Organization (PICCLO), and Editor of The University Bookman.
- Where do good leaders come from, and how can we insure we get “the best” rather than “the worst” into positions of leadership?
- Why did the framers of the Constitution treat, in the First Amendment, associative rights as being as important as rights of speech, press, and religion?
- Can local communities and governments withstand the pressures being put upon them by centralized bureaucracies? Ought they?